THE SPLIT SECOND DECISIONS THAT CHANGED HISTORY

Lazy Reading Brought Down The Berlin Wall

 

The fall of the Berlin Wall, which occurred in 1989, is one of the most important moments of the 20th century. It also, sort of, happened by accident. Guenter Schabowski, a spokesman for the East German Politburo, was hosting a press conference about the possibilities of East Germany allowing travel through the Wall.

Here’s the thing: right before the press conference, Shabowski received a memo from Politburo updating him on what to say, but he didn’t read the whole thing.

After nearly an hour of speaking, Schabowski got a bit muddled and confused about what was actual policy and what only the Politburo were discussing, and he overestimated the contents of that pre-conference memo.

He mentioned opening their fortified border and travel possible for every citizen, which got the attention of the room. When a reporter asked when the changes would take effect, and another shouted “Immediately?!” Schabowski responded with a distracted “Immediately. Right away.” This wasn’t entirely accurate, but word quickly got out, and the rest is history.

Four words that shaped America

 

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. approached the podium near the Lincoln Memorial with something he didn’t normally need: notes. Sensing the importance of the moment, King had stayed up late the night before perfecting his speech. But as he delivered it, he came to a line that wasn’t quite right. Off to the side, the singer Mahalia Jackson shouted, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” King paused, looked out over the crowd, and went off-script, saying, “I say to you today, my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.”

The rest of the speech stayed on that theme and “I have a dream” went down in history as one of the most memorable phrases ever delivered.

Time zone confusion ruined America’s relationship with Cuba

 

In early April 1961, Cuban exiles were trained and ready to execute the CIA’s secret plan to attack Cuba’s Bay of Pigs and overthrow Fidel Castro’s socialist government. After a failed air strike, President Kennedy sent in six American fighter planes to help. But the pilots forgot to sync their watches to Cuba time and arrived an hour late, rendering them useless. The relationship between Cuba and America has been strained ever since.

A note that cost the Confederacy

 

During the invasion of Maryland in September 1862, Confederate General Robert E. Lee drafted Special Order 191, outlining the moves the Army should make in preparation for the Battle of Antietam. A copy of the order ended up in the careless hands of Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill, who forgetfully left the note in a box on the ground, wrapped around three cigars. Union troops found the order, read the plans, and fended of the South in the bloodiest battle—and a turning point—of the Civil War.

The lengthy speech that saved a president’s life

 

On the evening of October 14, 1912, outside the Hotel Gilpatrick in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, president Theodore Roosevelt folded a 50-page manuscript in half and slipped it into the breast pocket of the Army overcoat he was wearing. He was headed to an auditorium nearby to deliver a campaign speech. As he stood to wave at the waiting crowd, a man shot him pointblank in the chest with a Colt .38 revolver. Luckily for Roosevelt, the gun was aimed at the side of his chest protected by the thick papers of the speech. The wad slowed the bullet to prevent it from entering his lung, and he went on to deliver the speech.

The key to a titanic disaster

 

On the night of April 14, 1912, the watchman assigned to the crow’s nest post atop the Titanic had a problem. The binoculars he needed to keep an eye out for large obstacles (icebergs, say), were inside a locked locker—and the key was missing. Right before the ship left port, the cruise company made a last-minute decision to replace the ship’s second officer David Blair with Charles Lightroller. In his haste to make the switch, Blair forgot to hand over the keys to the locker.

The monk who almost destroyed calculus

 

As students, we either loved calculus or hated it, but the world’s advancements in science in technology would be nothing without it. And if it weren’t for one nameless 13th century monk, those advancements may have occurred a lot sooner. Apparently, this monk couldn’t find any fresh paper to write his prayers, so he decided to erase the contents of an ancient text written by Archimedes, the Greek mathematician, and used that. Scientists later determined that the text was from a previously unknown book, now called the Archimedes Palimpsest, that laid out foundations of calculus long before Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, who are credited with discovering calculus.

The man who stopped nuclear war

 

Stanislav Petrov may not be a household name, but without him, there may not have been any households at all. The lieutenant for the Soviet Union Air Defense Forces was working an overnight shift in September, 1983, when his computer showed that five U.S. missiles were heading toward his country. He could have immediately reported the missiles, which likely would have resulted in all-out nuclear war, but he didn’t. Something wasn’t right; why would the Americans only send five missiles? He checked the computer and confirmed it was a malfunction. NPR reports that that incident and the Cuban Missile Crisis are considered the closest instances of nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviets—and the former was prevented by a single man trusting his gut.

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